Seeing more service animals in public can be exciting for any animal lover, but it raises an important question: when is it okay to touch an assistance animal?
Service Animal Tasks
Assistance animals are most often dogs, and they have been trained to perform medically-necessary tasks for their handlers. Some examples of this could be a guide dog performing alert behaviors for a visually-impaired handler, or a psychiatric service dog grounding their person during a panic attack. Unlike therapy and comfort dogs, service animals are trained especially for their handlers and often need to be paying attention to subtle signals while out in public with them. For example, a service dog may alert their handler if their blood sugar drops or signal the presence of potentially deadly allergens in their handler’s food. Since their handlers are depending on their dogs to focus, it’s best to let them go about their work without interruption: when in doubt, don’t distract.
Assistance Animals as Ambassadors?
To do their jobs in public access, service dogs are extremely well-socialized and well-trained. Most love people and would like to say “hi” to everyone, but they are allowed in places other animals are not so that they can work. The medical issues that require a service animal’s help may be private for their handler, so it’s best not to ask questions that could be invasive.
But each handler/dog team is unique, and some may welcome a chance to be an ambassador for assistance animals or allow their dog to politely greet the public with permission. It’s best to let the human partner initiate and offer to let their dog greet you, and to follow their instructions and lead. If a service dog is wearing a vest, which is optional, it may have a patch that says, “Do not pet”. Leave these teams alone. If the vest says “ask permission to pet”- that’s a sign they’re a team open to socializing.
No job is 24/7, and service dogs have off duty times too. When they’re not assisting their handler in public access, they may go to dog parks or hang out at home with their handlers’ family and friends. During these times, assistance animals can mingle like any other dog, but it’s usually a good idea to ask before petting any dog.
The PPG Assistance Animal Division is a volunteer committee which includes a broad representation of pet professionals with a variety of skills and interests specific to assistance animals. Assistance animal trainers and professional organizations are encouraged to join PPG for professional and educational support, advice, and materials that help promote force-free interactions with animals who help people. Pet owners can join for free, and as members will have access to additional pages on our website (along with some amazing vendor discounts!). We look forward to welcoming you into an inclusive group that prioritizes humane treatment and welfare of both people and assistance animals!